Earlier this week it was revealed that more than 1,500 children in the UK – some as young as 10 – had been held over alleged firearm offences between 2013 and January of this year. Ten years old. An age at which kids are typically more into playing with glitter-art kits than imported handguns.
This piece of news was the latest in what's been a pretty gun-heavy few months. Among multiple other stories, a spate of gang-related shootings in Manchester at the beginning of the year had police "very, very concerned". In February, police warned that a legal loophole was allowing gangs to easily buy, convert and use antique firearms. And last week, two men were convicted of an ISIS-inspired terror plot that would have seen them shooting at people from a moped, using a gun they had purchased from a London-based criminal.
To put all of these stories into perspective, I got in touch with firearms consultant David Dyson. His job involves providing advice in all sorts of cases involving guns, from the criminal – shootings, murders, attempted murders – to the more mundane, like someone getting hold of the wrong type of blank firing gun. His website URL is firearmsexpert.co.uk, so he seemed like the right person to speak to.
VICE: From what you've seen, is gun crime in the UK increasing or decreasing?
David Dyson: In my experience, things don't seem to have changed greatly. I don't notice any particular trends as such – though, over a period of time, you do get gradual shifts. For instance, you find that certain types of guns have been imported and become prevalent for a short time. Then you get different things used in crime that will overtake the guns used previously.
Where are they all coming from?
Well, it varies. Over the years we've found guns coming in from overseas. For instance, there was a thing called a bi-cal pistol that started off life as a self defence pistol produced in Russia. The barrel was pinched so it wouldn't fire a conventional bullet, but it would fire CS gas. It would also fire hard rubber balls, which would compress past the squeezed part of the barrel. So some guys in Lithuania got hold of these and were converting them, putting 9MM barrels on. They were very good; they compared well to conventional pistols, and for a few years there were many of these things recovered in crimes. I know that, before the forensic science service in London closed, they'd had over 700 through the doors, so god knows how many were still floating about. But they do seem to have dried up a bit now.
What about antique firearms? There was a story recently about how a load of them had been converted for use by gangs.
Yeah, the bulleted cartridge has been around for well over 100 years, so things that you could call antiques are actually still capable of being used. There's an exemption to various provisions of the firearms act which allows somebody to posses an antique firearm without any form of certification, as long as it's possessed as a curiosity ornament. Criminals have picked up on this and started buying guns, then manufacturing ammunition for them. This is why there are more antique guns being recovered in criminal circumstances than there were previously.
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So anyone could buy one of these guns?
In order to sell these guns lawfully as antiques, the ammunition has to be obsolete. That's fine, but there's a lot of ammunition that can be modified – you can buy modern cases and shorten them with a pipe cutter, then load them in a .44 Russian calibre revolver. Effectively, you've modified ammunition so that it can be used in a revolver that was never intended to use that ammunition. But as soon as you have that "antique gun" together with ammunition for it, it becomes unlawful and you're looking at a mandatory five-year minimum sentence just for having it.
In the UK, do you think people buy guns more for status and the intimidation factor, rather than with any intention of using them?
There's a lot of street cred attached to possession of firearms. A lot of the crimes involving guns are between gangs. Operation Trident, for example, was set up to deal with gang-on-gang crime in London. You tend to find, generally speaking, that victims of gun crime are people who are involved in that line of "work" themselves, so you will find criminals possessing guns to shoot other criminals. If you are aware that there might be trouble with a rival gang, and that gang has guns, then you may feel you need to get a gun yourself to protect yourself.
So why, according to the data released yesterday, are so many children being held for gun possession?
Traditionally, criminals give guns to junior members of gangs to look after on their behalf so the more senior members of the gang won't be caught in possession. That's one way kids end up with guns, simply minding them for somebody else. But I also think that, over the years, the age of the criminals has lowered, and I come across many instances where the people involved in a shooting or being shot are younger – late teens or early twenties.
What would happen to a minor caught in possession of a firearm?
Well, they're still guilty of a civil offence, but different sanctions will apply to kids. Obviously kids will go to young offenders institutions, but the offence is the same.
Which are the worst affected areas in the UK?
No surprises: it's the big cities. The sort of places where there are a lot of gangs, drug trafficking. Most of these cases do relate to gangs, and gangs are far more prevalent in the inner cities.
So gun possession is very closely related to drug activity, in your opinion, rather than something like armed robbery?
Yeah, it's a different form of use. You tend not to get that many armed robberies these days, and you see things on Crimewatch like kids going into post offices with air pistols. It's kind of pathetic. What we're talking about is professional and organised crime – those people have more sense than to wander around with a gun. I guess that's where we come back to the kids possessing guns, rather than the senior guys taking that risk.
How would you go about lowering gun crime?
There are many different issues. First of all, you have to get rid of this mystique that's attached to guns. Quite often, guys will get nicked for something and police will find pictures on their phones of them posing with guns. There's obviously an element of bravado, making you look big – and that's something that needs to be addressed. Some people want to be seen with them, so a lot of it is education, but whether people will be receptive to that education... god knows.
A good start would be reformed criminals, using people who have been involved in it themselves – people they will listen to. They won't listen to me, they won't listen to the police or anybody in the judiciary. But if it's somebody who's been there – somebody from the same background who's learned the same lessons – there might be a chance.
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